Zen Center Day 3 – Oceans and Pubs

On Tuesday, I awake from my ten hour slumber and feel refreshed but melancholy that I let a night slip away from me. I skip the morning meditation and instead write for a bit before breakfast. My goal for the day is to see how the pre-dinner meditation at 5:15 is, and if I will like it more or less than the sunrise zazen. We initiate the same routine as on the previous day, eating a silent breakfast and gathering around in the big work circle. Several people are leaving Green Gulch, and when announcement time comes around they express how grateful and sad they are to be going.

Have I mentioned all the bowing yet? Bows are given out a Green Gulch like free drinks at a casino. Every gesture of thanks is given and received with a bow. We bow to our food, to our cushions, and I’m pretty sure I even saw one resident bow to a rock.  We also bow in farewell to the departing.

It must be very strange for the permanent residents of the center to watch face after face pass through their halls. Occasionally, someone will decide to stay, but it’s obvious that this is a rare occurrence because those who have devoted their entire lives to Green Gulch are few. I have seen this elsewhere, in other communities. People in their twenties and thirties struggle to find a place in the world. I say this as someone who hasn’t found his, and while I sympathize with the desire to engage with a place like Green Gulch for a short period of time, it’s what I’m doing after all, I also wonder how it makes the residents feel; that they see time and again that Green Gulch isn’t the place for those passing through. What does that make Green Gulch? Is it a place of learning? Is it an intentional community? Is it just a groovy place to meditate and eat banging-good food? I don’t know, but the residents do not seem to harbor any grudges. They are as kind in parting as they are in welcome.

The day’s work involves clearing trails, and we are immediately warned that anyone on trail-clearing duty needs to watch out for poison oak. The vile plant is pointed out to us, and it does not resemble the poison ivy that I am familiar with. Its leaves are shaped differently and are turning red in the oncoming autumn. Obviously, I manage at some point to touch or rub up against a patch of the stuff; largely due to my arrogance and indifference. It turns out, I am not immune to poison oak any more than I am to its cousin. That’s jumping ahead, however, and on this day I do not feel any ill effects.  Trail clearing is satisfying because we can literally watch our progress, and the land along these paths is beautiful. At one point, we come to the end of a trail, and Zane, one of the groundskeepers and residents at the center, tells me to keep going a little and see the view. I take a new path leading upwards, and shortly come to a bench that overlooks the hills, and there, in the distance between two hilly outcroppings, is the ocean itself. I turn and scan the horizon to all sides, soaking it all in. There are clumps of massive trees dotting the hillsides here and there, and I ask if they are giant redwoods blasting their way out from the lesser foliage, but the answer is no. Almost directly opposite the ocean is the tallest peak from this viewpoint, and when a patch of fog clears I see a cottage resting up there, looking as though a stiff breeze could send it end over end into the valley. My first thought is that a billionaire recluse lives there, and that the only way to reach it is by helicopter. Carlos tells me that Green Gulch owns the house, and that it is available for rent at a pretty steep rate.

Carlos becomes one of the watershed workers that I bond the most with on the trip. He’s a Cuban American from Miami who is here with his wife April. From the stories they share, it would seem that they travel constantly, and they have been coming to Green Gulch for decades to volunteer on projects like this. Carlos calls himself a loud-mouthed Cuban, but he is friendly in a disarming way, and we end up talking at nearly every meal for the rest of the week. I never talk much with April, but she has the distinction of being the one guest who brings tuna to every dinner because she can’t do without the protein. Green Gulch doesn’t serve meat. Ironically she would spend a good chunk of her time helping out in the kitchen.

Zane is one of the residents, and though he has only been at Green Gulch a short while, he seems to have made himself an invaluable assistant to Sukey; in essence her right-hand man. I never find out where Zane is from, but he has an accent that feels east coast. He draws out the syllables in a word, and if he isn’t from Maine or Massachusetts, he might be from right here in California because he also sounds like a hippy. I can easily envision him adding “man” to each sentence. He tells me about some of his traveling, which mostly involves visiting other dharma centers, and I wonder if he has found his final home at Green Gulch. Eriko, Carlos, Zane, and I spend the entire day clearing out the trails, and the time slips by.

I join the evening meditation and am excited to find a spot in the zendo this time; not just a spot but an upper level spot. The zendo has an outer ring that is raised, about waist high, and in these spots one is actually staring right at the outer wall of the building. I find my posture, seek the breath, and hear Ana’s words float around in my head. The first thing I notice is the swallowing. I have never meditated in a group this large, and my neighbors on the right and left are only about a foot away. Every time one of the three of us swallows, there is a chain reaction of gulping, and I imagine the chain flows outwards and inwards to the rest of the sitters. There is a certain harmonious beauty to the thought, but it’s also distracting. I am sitting for about ten minutes when two muscles somewhere in the middle of my back start screaming. I attempt to breathe through it, mindful that small discomforts should not interrupt the meditation, but the pain keeps getting worse. It’s the tea house all over again, but without the claustrophobia. At some point, I give up the straight posture and try to be comfortable, which mostly works, but the largest part of me wants to lay down.

Despite the physical pain, I feel the unique calm and unity of meditating in a single room with forty or fifty other living, breathing humans. It’s powerful in a way that defies explanation, and though I’ve only participated once, I understand what draws these people to the zendo day after day.

After the ceremony and then dinner, I decide to have a hike to the beach. Sundown happens at around 7:30pm in the bay area, which only gives me an hour to get to the water and back, but it’s less than a mile away, and I don’t fear the wildlife. I have heard tell of coyotes and bobcats in the area, but I’m a zen master at this point so there’s no way they’d attack me.

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The path to the beach takes me through the farms, and I see the extent of what they’re growing at Green Gulch. The variety and scope are impressive; that it’s all organic and tended to with love makes it doubly so. I pass by a stable with four horses, all lined up and eating from troughs. I say hello, and tell them that I think the different colors of their coats are beautiful. They don’t have much to say, so I wander on.  I’m at the beach before I know it, and I can hear it coming.

I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean. I’ve dipped my toes in the Gulf of Mexico, but this will be the closest I’ve ever come to the real deal. The sounds hits me first, but it is the vision of it that strikes most forcibly. The vastness nearly overwhelms me. I used to have nightmares where I would see myself walking on some kind of creature, a being so large that my dream-camera would zoom out and zoom out and never see the entire thing. It terrified me, and I would always wake from these dreams with a feeling too bizarre to name. The ocean does not scare me, but it tickles that odd memory. I watch the waves roll in, discovering that they are what makes the ocean so loud, and that the absence of sound when they roll away is even louder. I wonder why there aren’t more waves when I consider the size of this body of water and the constant movements always animated within, around, and on top of it; why aren’t there waves a thousand feet high constantly drowning everything on shore? There are ropy aliens washed up all along the beach, along with the usual driftwood, and I think at first that they are some kind of water creature; a sea serpent with a bulbous head. The round part is smooth, like a wetsuit, and they almost look like giant red sperm. I am later told that this is simply kelp.

I spend some time observing the waves and the other people around who are also serenely img_1622watching the water wash in and wash out; in and out. As the sun sets and a chill wafts in from the sea, I decide I need some warmth and wander over to the nearby pub. A couple pints of bitter banishes the cold, and I am charmed by the Old English nature of the Pelican Inn. The place is too dark to read by, with only candles burning in the small sitting area, and so I attempt to write. The words are slow in coming, and eventually I put the pen down and simply enjoy the ambiance. I make my way home without seeing a single dangerous animal. As I fall asleep, I think about the ocean again and am a little disturbed, but the old nightmares stay buried.

Day 1.1
Day 1.2
Day 1.3
Day 2
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6

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